A conversation with Syndicate’s producer, writer, and art director on the future.

How will the nation’s wealth be divvied up 50 years from now? If videogames are to be believed (which, for obvious reasons, they shouldn’t, although Madden did pick the Giants to win the Super Bowl by a margin of three––just sayin’), the division will be more drastic in the future than it is today. Syndicate is Electronic Arts upcoming sci-fi dystopia, told through the language of recoiling machine guns that cover half of your television set, ultra-violence, and a hand-picked selection of cyberpunk memes. It is also a hotly-debated reboot of a classic PC game that some people say should have stayed an isometric strategy game. We caught up with three major players in its production, Jeff Gamon, the Executive Producer, Richard Morgan, the Writer, and John Miles, the Art Director, to find out what the future has to say about metropolitan cities, first-person shooters, and our rising moral bankruptcy.

Whenever I play a game with a clean, futuristic setting, I can’t help but think that the architecture of the game is based on the facilities of the company who made them. For instance, Mirror’s Edge has geometrically precise high-rises, Dead Space 2 is set inside dark, metallic spacecraft, and Syndicate takes place within sweeping foyers and futuristic offices buildings. Could you talk about EA’s campuses in relation to these virtual places?

Jeff Gamon (Executive Producer): Ha, well I’ve worked in some gloomy studios but I think comparisons to Dead Space would beat the worst of them. While I suppose many of the EA facilities are cool working environments relative to many, they are at the end of the day, offices. While elements of your environment might unconsciously creep into creative thinking, level design always requires what in architectural terms would be a ludicrous layout of corridors, stairways and convoluted locking mechanisms. Working in such an environment might be fun for a while but I think getting a coffee via doors opened by switches in another room, and vaulting down obstructed corridors might quickly become tedious.

In a recent interview, William Gibson, one of the fathers of cyberpunk, said “cyberspace is everting.” He continued, “I think it’s starting to go out, because it is no longer describing what is happening.” If cyberspace is becoming irrelevant, why is cyberpunk, the world and themes built around cyberspace, still important?

Richard Morgan (Writer): Well, I think primarily because cyberspace was only ever one element of the cyberpunk ethos, and, for my money, one of the least important.  What Gibson imported into science fiction above all was a noir sensibility, an underbelly feel borrowed from mid-century American pulp literature and re-tooled to fit future contexts. The Sprawl’s data cowboys were really the least of it. It was the murky criminal underground that they swam in that was truly cool, and, equally important, told us something about our existing visions of the future––to wit, that they were bankrupt. What cyberpunk did was simply assume the human element; it said that the future would be full of the same messy human dynamics as the present and the past. Technology wasn’t going to save us––it was just going to make things shinier.  I think that is cyberpunk’s enduring legacy, and it isn’t going away any time soon. 

One characteristic of cyberpunk is that, like all good science fiction, it is metaphorical. The writings of H.G. Wells captured the fears of Victorian England. Connections have been made between Star Trek and political theories. Deus Ex: Human Revolution warned that technology isn’t always for the best. Does Syndicate have an underlying moral?

Richard Morgan: Yes, I’d say it does. Paraphrasing Amory Lovins, the underlying moral is that market forces may make good economic servants, but they’re a very bad master and an even worse god. Basically, when humanity is subordinated to economics, you can expect things to get very bleak indeed.

Science fiction imagines future technology. The Time Machine postulated about time travel before quantum physics suggested that it might be possible. Isaac Asimov wrote of advanced robotic AI. What sorts of future technologies are speculated on in Syndicate?

Richard Morgan: The legacy of the original Syndicate is really a riff on the Lovins quote above, and that remains true for the re-boot.  But in strictly technological terms, what we’re exploring in this Syndicate is how far biotech and AI development might take augmented reality and consumerism – and what might easily be lost along the way.

Speaking of cyberpunk and science fiction, what cinema, television, and novels did you take inspiration from?

John Miles (Art Director): There’s a huge library of cyberpunk influences, but central to this is Philip K Dick’s novels and film adaptions. His dystopian vision of authoritarian governments and altered states inspired our imagination. Conceptually we set out to represent the extremes of society through the game visuals. The verticality of the city dramatically represents status; poor at the bottom, rich at the top, clean and bright verses dark, gritty and polluted.

Syndicate‘s chipped society exaggerates this concept even further. In 2069, corporations control where the populous can roam, what media they’re exposed to and what they should consume. Let’s not forget the un-chipped civilians, digitally locked out of these gated communities, they inhabit the eclectic and diverse downzones. The player gets to see the world both augmented through the chip and digitally naked as the un-chipped Downzoners. The chip enabled us to explore visually a vast range of situations and environments. The challenge was to graphically tie these together so they felt like one game.

Syndicate is a reboot of an older computer game by the same name. However, the new game is a first person shooter, while the previous Syndicate was a well-regarded real-time strategy game. On the surface, they don’t seem similar at all. In what ways is Syndicate influenced and inspired by its older sibling?

Richard Morgan: The underlying theme of the original Syndicate is one which transcends the game itself and stands alone as a classic concern of the science fiction genre in general. Syndicate borrowed from an existing memeplex of cyberpunk-derived ideas––corporate power unleashed, the death of government, biotech-enhanced operatives, warfare over data and elite data specialists, alienating night-time cityscapes, ordinary humans as disposable chaff. The re-boot has all of this and more, and for a very simple reason––we’re not just re-booting Syndicate, we’re mining the very same memeplex the original game fed off. 

Some fans were disappointed that the well-regarded strategy game had become the latest in a long line of samey first-person shooters. I understand that the multiplayer makes some concessions, harkening back to the original game. In what ways does it do this?

Jeff Gamon: We always wanted to remain faithful to the spirit of the original real-time strategy game. The co-op campaign is closest to the original. Four agents raid enemy bases to assassinate personnel and steal technology and research material. The missions are inspired by the original game, and, in some cases, we’ve recreated the areas to be played in first-person. Outside of the missions, the stolen technology can be used to unlock and upgrade weapons and new abilities.

Perhaps unjustifiably, Syndicate has been compared to Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Both games revive older franchises that have futuristic vantage points. Looking at the two games, one obvious difference I see is the visual style. Deus Ex is dark and dingy. Syndicate is clean and sterile. What does the art style say about the game’s vision of the future?

John Miles: The game’s environments aren’t just clean and sterile; they vary dramatically across the levels. Yes, there are the clean and hygienic corporate headquarters, but there is  also the gritty, polluted underbelly of New York City, and many other unique locations.

The world of Syndicate is an exaggerated version of our cities today; extremes in wealth, environments and culture. Only in 2069, we have the added distortion of the chip augmentations to make each citizen’s world unique to them.

The world is governed by giant corporations called syndicates. Where do you think Electronic Arts will be at that time? Will it be one of the syndicates? 

Jeff Gamon: Good question. If you have any insights into where digital entertainment will be then I’d be very interested in hearing from you. 

Syndicate takes place in the year 2069. Do you think there will be any more videogame concepts to explore then, or will games be tapped of new ideas?

Richard Morgan: I think “new idea” is a bit of a mistaken concept, really. All ideas are recombinant to some extent.  Pick any seminal work of art or literature (or technology, come to that!), and you’ll always be able to find antecedents, influences, prior exemplars surrounding the context in which said work was created.  The process of innovation is incremental. It always builds on what’s gone before. And to that extent, no, I don’t think games (or movies or books) will ever be tapped of innovation.  They are integral to being human.  

Do you think people will still be playing first person shooters?

Richard Morgan: Almost certainly, yes. It’s a very robust, satisfying form. That’s not to say that the gaming medium won’t have come up with a whole bunch of other cool stuff too. But people are still reading books, despite all the advances and cool dynamics emerging from a century of movie-making and now interactive media. I see no reason why the straightforward visceral shooter shouldn’t endure.

– Jason Johnson